Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand

By Bryan Walker 28/04/2011

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the SandJohn Cook’s website Skeptical Science is held in high regard for its patient examination of the arguments put up by climate change deniers and its marshalling of the answers mainstream climate science provides. The result is quietly devastating as the scientific inadequacy of the deniers’ arguments becomes apparent.

Cook has now collaborated with environmental scientist Haydn Washington in a book which puts denial in all its forms under the spotlight of reason and challenges readers to recognise it for the delusion it is. Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand not only focuses on the deniers who claim that the science is wrong but also, as the subtitle indicates, conducts a telling examination of the full range of societal denial. Some denial is active and aggressive, but the persistent refusal of society to adequately face up to the reality of climate change is also a form of denial, one which the book addresses with urgency.

The science is explained first. The chapter which covers the basics of climate science is a model of clarity, remarkably comprehensive within the space available to it. It shows why the increases in global temperature since 1960 cannot be explained without anthropogenic forcings. In describing the carbon cycle it acknowledges that the emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation may seem small in comparison to the other fluxes of carbon, but points out that it is as perturbations of an existing balance that they have such a powerful effect. A clear explanation of feedback mechanisms, Hansen’s ’guts of the climate problem’, is included. Runaway climate change, meaning becoming locked into accelerating temperature that may stabilize some 6-10 degrees higher than today, is the uncomfortable ultimate possibility that feedbacks and climate surprises open up.  When it comes to defining dangerous climate change the chapter refers to Hansen’s view that the collapse of the ice sheets would be the critical event, with the subsequent coastal devastation and its economic impact making it very difficult for humanity to do much to reverse the changes. The authors finally note the new factors that are emerging in the science to suggest that the forecasts of the pace and impacts of climate change are understatements.

Moving on to climate change denial arguments, the book perceptively groups them under five headings which incidentally show how little most of them have to do with genuine science. Conspiracy theories form one group; they were exploited to the utmost in the Climategate affair. A second is the quoting of fake experts as opposing the consensus; any scientist will serve, no matter how far removed from climate study. Impossible expectations provide a third grouping; deniers reject models, for example, on the grounds that they do not provide certainty. Misrepresentations and logical fallacies characterise the fourth group of arguments, such as the claim that because climate has changed in the past current climate change must be natural. Finally comes cherry picking, both of data and of published papers; the claim that global warming is good falls in this category and the book provides devastating tables of the positives and negatives of global warming to show that such a claim is made against the enormous weight of evidence to the contrary.

Denial of consensus science has a long history. Climate science denial has antecedents in campaigns against the science relating to tobacco, acid rain and the ozone hole amongst others. The denial campaigns are always heavily funded by industries whose interests are threatened by the science. At this point the authors focus on one of the latest instalments of the climate change denial movement, Ian Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth. They respond to him with the mainstream science he rejects. The blustering confidence he displays makes it unlikely that he and his like will be disturbed by the calm statements of the science offered here, but hopefully those statements will help other readers see that a professorship in geology doesn’t add weight to claims that attract no support from those engaged in the real climate science.

At this point the book turns its attention away from the denial industry to address the more subtle denial which pervades society and prevents our engagement with the urgent task of addressing climate change. These chapters use sociologist Stanley Cohen’s illuminating categorisation of denial into three varieties. Literal denial is the argument of the climate deniers and the denial industry. Interpretive denial is what we see from governments who talk much but do little. Implicatory denial engages most of us — it’s not that we deny the knowledge, but we don’t incorporate it into everyday life or act on it. We evade the issue. There is an elephant in the room but we don’t want to notice it.  Not only do we want to ignore it, but we don’t want to talk about ignoring it. Our ’self-interested sloth’ means we avoid the question and thus deny it.

Our avoidance is understandable, the book grants. Climate change is deeply disturbing. It threatens our confidence in the continuity of our self-identity and the constancy of our social and material environments. We fear change, somewhat ironically in this case since that fear ought to mobilise us to prevent a highly threatening change. We are fixated on growth economics and unable to give proper consideration to ecological sustainability. Indeed our ecological ignorance is profound and is compounded by our failure to understand exponential growth. We have an alarming readiness to gamble on the future. The media haven’t helped: they have failed to communicate clearly the causes of climate change and portrayed the science as controversial. Politicians have found it all too much to handle.

How do we roll back denial?  First, we face reality. Yes it’s grim, but it’s not hopeless. The authors have no truck with despair. Literal denial is answered by science. The interpretive denial of the politicians can be changed by public pressure. But the implicatory denial in which we are mired requires a re-examination of our values and our ideologies.  The consumerist society will no longer serve. The authors envisage a dream of the ‘great work’ of repairing the earth as propounded by Thomas Berry in his book of that title. Consumerism has failed. We need an eco-centric ethic, which considers the whole of nature. The writers discuss this at some length, putting in a plug for a steady state economy as one which makes sense in a climate change world.

They believe there are people — though by no means everyone yet — willing to break with delusion and denial and it is with such that the book seeks to communicate. Much detailed discussion follows as to what is involved, including a survey of the ’wealth of solutions’ which offer good grounds for optimism that large emission cuts can be achieved at moderate cost. Renewable energy is the key, going hand in hand with a reduction in consumerism, and the authors explain how they see it working out without recourse to nuclear power, to the questionable technology of carbon capture and storage or to geoengineering.

The book is compact and well referenced. It carries an eloquent foreword from Naomi Oreskes. It is lucid and compelling in its discussions. It adds a weighty voice to the summons to face the physical and ethical reality of climate change, to have done with denial and to set about the still achievable task of repair.

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